One would expect a foreign film like Theeb to provide the audience with some sort of historical backdrop in order to contextualize a niche storyline. However, besides the minimal information that we are now in 1913 Jordan, not much else is given to Theeb’s viewers, who are immediately afterwards thrown into a jarringly different geo-historical perspective limited through the eyes of a child. Viewers quickly learn this child is the titular character Theeb who lives away from sedentary civilization. Historically keen viewers can surmise (or avid Googlers can verify) that Theeb belongs to a nomadic group of people called Bedouins. The intrinsic vagrant nature of Theeb’s life coupled with his naïve youth parallel our limited contextual understanding of the setting of the film. Viewers learn and question with Theeb. As he garners more information, we garner more information. Thus, writer and director Naji Abu Nowar lures viewers into Theeb’s emotionally raw and unedited perspective of his surroundings
The precarious development of events in relation to Theeb appear slow at first. Interactions with his brother and other clan members seem almost relentlessly drawn out to the point of redundancy. However, as the story makes small but crucial pivots, the viewer becomes invested in the minor moments of Theeb’s life. The long shots of the film provide visual insight and understanding into Bedouin life. At first, the scrutinous attention to the miniscule details of desert life or small clan interactions appear painstaking to the first-world viewer. However, over several scenes of the film, even the most privileged viewer gains a transitory perspective into the slow-moving life of a nomad. Every movement of a clan member, every conversation, every gust of wind or unfamiliar footstep seems inconsequential to the first-world viewer, but to the Bedouin character these events carry an amount of pertinence we evolve to value. Theeb’s attention to detail as he goes about his daily activities is particularly important in developing an understanding of the sociopolitical climate in which Theeb lives; his curiosity and scrutiny become gateways for the viewers’ understanding of his life.
Specifically, the prolonged scenes with Theeb and his brother give the viewers more insight into Bedouin culture. Through these scenes, viewers form a dependency with the older brother, Hussein, who provides us with answers in this sphere of limited perspective. We eventually learn that these particular Bedouins lived as pilgrim guides, but when the Ottoman Turks constructed a train (ambiguously referenced to as just “the train”), the need for pilgrim guides fell obsolete. Thus, many took up raiding in order to survive.
During the movie, an Englishman arrives. While we are not clued in to the historical significance of British involvement in Bedouin life or Ottoman Turkish life, the Englishman acts becomes a point of curiosity for both Theeb and the viewers. Symbolically, the Ottoman Turks and the Englishman are abrupt and detrimental aberrations from Theeb’s normal life. While the raiders also introduce a level of danger in his life, this danger is predictable and, gauging from the film, brought upon indirectly by the Ottoman Turks. An Ottoman train brought about an indirect collapse of Theeb’s clan, sufficiently outsourcing their work and leaving many to resort to unforgiving lifestyles. Theeb eventually falls victim to this lifestyle, but it was catalyzed by the Englishman (rather than the Ottoman Turks). The introduction of the Englishman created an immediate displacement, jolting Theeb into a jarringly different reality.
Behind the physical causes of change in Theeb’s life is an underlying process of decay and evolution of destruction that we see unfold throughout the film. As Theeb experiences the death of loved ones, there is a stark juxtaposition between Theeb’s emotional decay and the physical decay of death. Theeb transitions rather abruptly from a life of survival with emotional support to life of survival as a lone wolf. The evolution of his character into this “lone wolf” trope plays off his own name, Theeb, which means wolf in Arabic. A recurring idea in the film is a saying Theeb’s father instilled in Hussein and Theeb that “the strong eat the weak.” As Theeb forcibly parts from his innocence and childhood, he adopts this mentality in order to survive and avenge his loved ones. By the last scene, Theeb succumbs to the final stage of this evolution into destruction. While this evolution is physically exacerbated by the train, the Englishman and the raiders, it is also self-motivated through his incessant curiosity. Unfortunately, the viewers do not get a glimpse into the future to see whether he returns to his clan, becomes a raider or simply a lone wolf.
By the end of the film we are left with as many questions as we started with and our perspective is limited once more with the departure of our counterpart Theeb. While in the beginning the viewer’s perspective was paralleled with that of Theeb’s, they become orthogonal by the end because Theeb reaches a point of realization, maturity and purpose that the viewer does not simultaneously obtain upon his absence. What the viewer is left with is a subdued understanding of Bedouin life, along with feelings of anger and disappointment because we no longer are part of Theeb’s story. With geopolitical and social thematic strands hanging off the film, we itch to sew them together at the end, but find ourselves lost without the perspective of our titular character and without any contextual knowledge of the history. Within an hour and 40 minutes, Naji Abu Nowar constructed and deconstructed a jarringly real life through adept and keen filming and story development, creating a film that is at once curiously provocative and teasingly ephemeral.
Theeb plays at the Cornell Cinema at 7:00 PM on February 18.
Harini Kanna is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.